Monday, January 11, 2010

Bringing It to the Table

Sometimes cleaning up your desk means you need to review a book and then put it back on the shelf.

A couple of months ago I bought a copy of Bringing It To the Table: On Farming and Food by Wendell Berry. I have to admit never quite finishing a book by Berry, but I thought I would give this compilation of short pieces on farming, farmers and food a try, and I almost made it.

The third section on food consists primarily on excerpts from Berry's fiction, which I don't find compelling or entertaining, and I couldn't quite get through all the descriptions of farm house meals of old. But the 1989 essay on "The Pleasures of Eating", which contains the famous line "eating is an agricultural act" redeems the section.

The section on farmers contains a variety of pieces which ought to be required reading for those who think sustainability and permaculture are new things. In different ways, the farmers visited and described connect the dots of frugality, sustainability and spirituality. These pieces written over a thirty year period also make the case for human scale farming. It's hard to choose just one exemplary quotation, but I think my favorite is from the earliest essay, "Elmer Lapp's Place" (1979)
"His aim, it seems, is not that the place should be put to the fullest use, but that it should have the most abundant life."

The first third of the book "Farming" has bits of wisdom along the way. One thread running through it is the understanding that smaller, diversified farms tend to create stronger communities, and that neighborliness is as important a value in farming as ecological health. Related to that "The industrial economy grows and thrives by lengthening and complicating the connection between producer and consumer." I thought about these notions when looking at the goals of our county Food System Alliance at this afternoon's meeting, and seeing the pleas to re-connect growers and eaters.

Reading Berry I was also prodded to think about industrial agriculture as an extractive industry - more like mining or clear cutting than farming.

My one beef with Berry's comments is that he sometimes uses "science" in a pejorative way, when what I think he means is reductionism or the inappropriate uses of technology. But he would not be the first, and probably will not be the last, romantic to do this.

So, one more quotation, on the tensions between environmentalism and agriculture:
"The question we must deal with is not whether the domestic and the wild are separate or can be separated; is is how, in the human economy, their indissoluble and necessary connection can be properly maintained."

No comments: